Roaming and Reading: Havana, Cuba

Tourists took in the sites of Havana
Tourists took in the sites of Havana from a double decker tour bus.
Joe Raedle | AP

With relations thawing between Cuba and the United States, a growing number of Americans are poised to visit the Caribbean nation.

Paul Reyes, a Cuban-American whose father left the island in 1962, wrote about "the Cuba you can look forward to" for The New York Times.

For this week's Roaming and Reading, Reyes joined MPR News' Kerri Miller to discuss the island's architecture and the changes afoot.

On the allure of Cuba

With any prohibition, there's a temptation to try what's being prohibited. ... There's a unique character to Cuba. The frozen-in-time quality, which has become a bit of cliche, is still fascinating to see. Part of the temptation is that it's so close and it's kind of a legendary part of American popular culture. Not only because of the fantastic voyage it represented prior to the embargo but what has happened since.

On the architectural mix around Havana

There is that embattled dignity, where you have the colonial buildings falling apart or being held up by two-by-fours. You can stand in some of them and look at the mottled paint and see how history and the climate have ravaged these buildings, but something shines through in the colors and the Caribbean touches. ...

There's wonderful midcentury architecture there as well, and again, the upkeep hasn't been that great, but there's some modern touches, art deco styles. It really depends on where you go. I think Vedado is a wonderful example of that. It's not quite a suburb of downtown old Havana, but it's within a few miles. There you have such a mix, you can see a lot of that antiquated quality but ... you almost see the scenes from The Godfather, this idea that it was the playground of the mafia. It's all there in Vedado and various neighborhoods through the city. It's a wonderful mash-up of architecture.

On getting past the initial tourist phase

It's one thing to walk by [the crumbling buildings] with a camera and it's another thing to live in them. Being from Cuba and having relatives there and living with them for a while during our visits, I've had the experience and I've acquired a little bit of wisdom in being able to do both. I remember the first time I went, all I did was go along the Malecon and take pictures of all the buildings. Then I stayed for a while in some of the buildings and only by staying there for a long enough time do you get past the nostalgia. It's very important for us to realize that. There's no debating how beautiful it is on the first impression, but it's equally important to realize what's behind those aesthetics — and it's a lot of broken policy.

On what visitors can expect next year

We know it's going to be crowded. Apparently, according to the latest report from the Cuban National Statistics Office, tourism is already up 16 percent. Most of that is Canadians; I'm not quite sure what that means, I think they're trying to get there before we fill the place up. But there are more Americans going than there were last year.

It will be a very busy time. A lot of people visiting Cuba will fall under the new 12 categories. A lot of what we're going to see are efforts to revitalize the country. What's part of this nostalgia and the sentimentalizing of prohibited Cuba is also an effort to bring it back to its former glory, so I think it will be radically different next year.

On places to visit beyond the beaches

Obviously you have to start in Havana, then head west to the mountains of Pinar del Rio, then east to Santiago. Trinidad is a stunning colonial town toward the middle of the country, Cienfuegos is a beautiful portside city, a very small city. That's what I would do and that's a wonderful way to get to know the country beyond the beaches — dive into the interior and get to know the people and landscape.

Further reading

For those looking to explore Cuba on the page, Kerri Miller recommended Pico Iyer's novel "Cuba and the Night," about a love affair between an American photojournalist and a young Cuban woman.

The New York Times declared: "Mr. Iyer is a gifted raconteur as well as a seasoned traveler, and reading 'Cuba and the Night' is a satisfying journey to a memorable destination with an unforgettable companion."

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